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As my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary said today, Conservative Members’ support for the Government’s policies for Afghanistan has been acknowledged by Ministers on a number of occasions. However, I echo what he said earlier—that any requests for more UK troops must take into account the overstretch in our forces and the disproportionate contribution we
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are already making, especially in southern Afghanistan. If more troops are to be deployed there, it must be in support of a specific political process and we must have a proportionate increase in our assets to match our increase in the number of troops. Real pressure must be placed on the Afghan Government not to block in any way what the international community is trying to achieve, and we must have a greater effort by NATO allies in burden sharing in Afghanistan.

As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) and the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) said today, we need clarity in the strategies that we pursue because at the moment it is hard to know how we will know when we have been successful. It is hard to know what the benchmarks are to tell us when we are getting things right, when we are failing to make real progress and what our exit strategy should be. As we said in our last defence debate, when we talk about strategy in Afghanistan, the question is which strategy—the UN strategy, the NATO strategy, the Afghan Government strategy, the American strategy or the reconstruction strategy? They are not all tied together in a coherent format.

We know that some things are going much better than others. The Afghan national army is doing relatively well. We are making good progress and the British armed forces have done a great deal to encourage that. However, as the Foreign Secretary said, the same cannot be said of the police force in Afghanistan. We need to ask why not. Why is it that some things have made better progress than others? Where does the blame lie and, far more important, how can we put it right? As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) said, we have to ensure that we have the right equipment at all times to give support to our forces. I am sure that the whole House will look forward to the publication of the report that he discussed.

The subject of Iran was raised a number of times. The primary question for the international community is whether it finds the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran acceptable. We have set out three reasons why we believe that the prospect is unacceptable. The first is the nature of the regime and its leadership, not least its threat to Israel’s very existence. The second is Iran’s record in exporting terror to other parts of the region. Adding fissile material to that situation would be utterly irresponsible. The third is that if Iran becomes a nuclear weapons state, others in the region will want to join the nuclear club. I was recently in Turkey, where it was made clear to me that if Iran becomes a nuclear weapons state, so will Turkey, and so will Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Do we really want a new nuclear arms race in the world’s most unstable region?

If we are to influence Iran’s behaviour, we must have international solidarity on matters such as sanctions. We will require the co-operation of countries such as Russia, yet Prime Minister Putin was recently reported as saying that Russia is aware of what Europe is still doing in Iran and that it will not hand over this valuable market to Europe. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) said, President-elect Obama would be in a much stronger position if there was international unity, yet Europe is failing to show resolution where it matters. As he said, there is no ban yet on European investment in Iranian oil and gas fields
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and no ban on Europe-wide export credit guarantees, which subsidise trade with Iran. If we want security, we cannot say one thing and do another.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) made a passionate speech about the need for multilateral disarmament. It is fair to say that with bipartisan support, the United Kingdom’s approach is within the spirit and the letter of the non-proliferation treaty because our new nuclear deterrent will be at a lower warhead level than is currently the case. We are making our contribution; others must do the same. However, his speech echoed other contributions about the need for a new framework for non-proliferation. We will be in a world where more countries will want access to civil nuclear power. At the very least, we will need to be able to control the fuel cycle, with new structures and safeguards, if that is not to become a new proliferation problem.

A number of hon. Members talked about the relationship between the EU and NATO. NATO remains the cornerstone of our security. There can be a role for the EU in defence, but it must be as a delivery mechanism within NATO policy, not in conflict with NATO. It should do things that NATO cannot or will not do—elements of nation-building, and peacekeeping that is complementary to NATO’s actions, not in competition with them—and have additional resources, rather than diverting scarce resources. Far too few members of NATO pay what they are supposed to in terms of their share of GDP. In fact, if all NATO members paid 2 per cent. of their GDP, we would have $67 billion extra for NATO defence spending every year. That is a considerable sum.

We heard about piracy. Why is it that some hon. Members—a couple of my hon. Friends alluded to this—chose not to reinforce the Combined Task Force 150 mission or the NATO mission and chose to fly the EU flag instead? It smacks of politics first and piracy second.

Of course, everything depends on the capability of our armed forces. We are still operating on 1998 defence planning assumptions. We need a strategic defence review. The Ministry of Defence still has a mismatch between commitments and resources. We are now told that there will be further cuts or delays to programmes, but on what basis? Against what strategic analysis? The suspicion is that the present Government have not the will to fund fully what the Government themselves, in the strategic defence review, said was necessary for our national security. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) pointed out, there is a danger that the use of urgent operational requirements will destabilise the procurement budget. We must defend our defence exports, because that is how we can protect British defence jobs in the long term.

Let me end with a tribute to our armed forces, their families and the civilians who contribute to our country’s safety. Whether Members visit Iraq, the Gulf or Afghanistan, they will observe that our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines—all the men and women in our armed forces—show courage, dedication and professionalism. Those men and women have a right to expect the Government of the day, of whatever colour, to maximise the success of a mission, and to do all that they can to minimise the risk to them. If they are injured, they will be looked after properly; if they are killed, their families will be looked after properly; and if
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they leave the armed forces, they will be valued as veterans who have made sacrifices for the country. That is the covenant. It is the ultimate underpinning of our security in this country, and if it is broken, all of us will be the losers.

6.45 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Hutton): Let me begin by picking up the theme and the tone of the final comments of the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), which I thought were excellent. I am afraid it is true that there are many things in the House that divide us, but I hope there is one thing that should always unite us: the respect and admiration that we should demonstrate for those who serve in Her Majesty’s armed forces.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government have set out a comprehensive range of measures that will go a significant way towards ensuring that the military covenant he described is honoured and fully respected. The 40 separate recommendations set out in the summer by my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), represent a significant improvement in the range of support and help that we provide both for those who are currently serving and for those who have left the service of the Queen. I agree entirely with what the hon. Gentleman said: I think it incumbent on us to attach the highest priority to that.

It is a privilege to respond to what I think has been an excellent debate, featuring outstanding contributions from Members on both sides of the House. During the 13 minutes available to me, I shall do my best to deal with all the issues that have been raised.

On defence policy, Members on both sides of the House raised the issues of nuclear proliferation and current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The subject of defence procurement arose several times, and the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer)—who, sadly, is not present now—raised some important questions relating to civil contingency planning. I intend to deal with all those comments. On foreign policy, Members raised the issues of Georgia and Ukraine, Zimbabwe, the role of the European Union in security and defence policy and the wider issues of terrorism, Iran and the middle east.

I now have 12 minutes in which to deal with all those points. Let me begin with the excellent speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) at the beginning of the debate. He offered us the benefit of his extensive experience in the Foreign Office, and contributed rich insights to the debate on Afghanistan. The hon. Member for Woodspring queried our strategy in Afghanistan, but I believe that we have the right strategy. I believe that we have a genuinely comprehensive framework of policy which covers security issues and the political, social and economic development agenda.

As has been widely observed both in the House and outside, we have never argued that the only solution to the enormous problems of Afghanistan lies in the hands or the gift of the military alone. That is palpably not true. My personal view—and the strong view of the Government—is that if we desire, as we all do, to make progress in other areas, we must act according to what we know both instinctively and on the basis of precedent and evidence. If we are to sustain a sensible solution to
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the risk of terrorism, we must develop stable and secure democratic institutions and effective governance. We must deal with the corrosive effect of corruption and crime, and we must be able to develop the instruments, policy and tools that will help us to sustain the progress that we have made. That is what we are trying to do in Afghanistan; but if we are criticised for our lack of progress, I know that we can all agree that we would like to do more in all those areas.

However, the essential precondition for success in Afghanistan is that there be improvements in security. That is a fundamental issue, because everything else depends on it. That is not to say that we should not do everything we can to develop reconciliation approaches; we should do so. That is in my view an Afghan lead—the Afghan Government must be able to take the initiative in that. We have to be able to guarantee greater security in every part of Afghanistan, not only in Helmand and the south, but in the east, north and west as well. There is more progress to be made in all those areas, but my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd was right to address the subject in the way he did.

The issue of nuclear proliferation was raised by several Members, including the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), and, towards the end of his remarks, by the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey). It is true that with the non-proliferation treaty review conference coming up in 2010 we have an opportunity to make some headway and progress. We have proposed initiatives covering the treaty’s three main pillars: non-proliferation, disarmament and the peaceful use of nuclear energy. The Government are doing all they can to support a successful outcome to the NPT review, and it is important that we make progress, but I strongly agreed with the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea when he described nuclear disarmament as essentially a multilateral process; it must be so.

I took issue—as I have often done—with my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North in his approach to these matters. I also take issue with what he said about the nuclear White Paper. He said that we were planning an expansion of the Trident fleet. As he knows, that is not the Government’s policy. We are taking the necessary measures now to prepare for the need for an eventual replacement of the current Vanguard class, but we are doing so on a prudent basis and it remains a minimum nuclear deterrent.

The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton got it wrong, too. He described our decision to replace the nuclear deterrent as premature. That is fundamentally wrong. We set out in the nuclear White Paper a clear time scale for the replacement and the reasons why it is necessary. If he does not agree with the time scale, which represents the best advice we have received from the military, he and his party are countenancing something that should not be countenanced: a gap in the deterrence capability of the UK.

Jeremy Corbyn: Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to assure the House that no work is going on in the replacement of nuclear warheads or the development of new nuclear warheads at Aldermaston or any other defence establishment?

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Mr. Hutton: I can give that assurance. I thought I recently answered a parliamentary question on that from my hon. Friend. We made it clear in the nuclear White Paper that we will come back to this House to have a vote on that if and when the need arises.

I have only eight minutes left now, so I am running out of time as I still have 78 issues to respond to. Let me end my comments on nuclear proliferation with the following remarks. The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea has had responsibility for this policy, and I have a great deal of respect for his judgment on these matters. He will know that when Ministers need to make decisions about nuclear deterrence, they are not thinking about the next two, three or five years, but have to take into account the next 40 or 50 years. That is the lifetime of the weapons system that we are designing and, as Members will know when they look at the detail of the White Paper, the new fleet will begin to come into service from about 2024 onwards. We are therefore thinking about a time frame that covers up to the middle of this century. Of course, we would all welcome a world free of nuclear weapons, because that is the sane and, it is to be hoped, it will be the happy outcome of all these discussions, but we must defend ourselves. We must take a reasonable judgment against risk. We know perfectly clearly that others are rearming as well, and the Government are not prepared to deny future generations the benefit and security that current generations have enjoyed from the nuclear deterrent.

My hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) made an excellent speech, and I want to pay tribute to him for the work he did in the Ministry of Defence and also to remind him of the very high regard in which he is held. He made the case that we have made significant improvements in relation to equipment. That is true and it needs to be put on the record. Members who have been to Afghanistan and Iraq will have heard first hand from troops on the ground that they have never felt better equipped and that they feel they have the right kit with which to do the difficult and dangerous job we ask them to do.

A great deal more work needs to be done on procurement, and the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) raised a number of interesting issues in that context. Tomorrow, we shall set out some ways in which we intend to improve value for money in defence procurement and so on. Although I accept that more work needs to be done in that area, we must ensure that a balanced range of kit is available to our armed forces. It must allow them to deal not just with what is likely to be the most realistic threat—disputes not between states but within states, given that there are failing states and given the rise of terrorism—because we will also still have to plan, prepare and equip our forces for a different range of missions that could include, heaven forbid, more traditional forms of inter-state warfare. That is a difficult balance to get right. Every Secretary of State in every country in the world wrestles with these issues, but it is right that we try to strike the right balance on all these arguments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) raised the situation in Zimbabwe, and I praise the work that she has done in all the areas that that involves. We are all seriously concerned about the deepening humanitarian crisis in that country. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and others are working to
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help contain the cholera outbreak, and we will continue to do all we can to address the basic needs of Zimbabwe’s very long-suffering people. The dire situation is clearly the result of a chronic and wilful failure of social, economic and political will, and we continue to engage states in the region. We welcome the contribution of those, such as Kenya and Botswana, that have been willing to speak out against the atrocities that the Mugabe regime is inflicting on its own people.

The hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) raised the interesting question of the relationship between the European Union and the European security and defence policy, and I very much welcome what he had to say. I am not sure that the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) would have been with him on everything that he said about the ESDP. I have said before—I stand by these remarks—that we should take a positive and pragmatic view of the ESDP. That is very much what is enshrined in the St. Malo agreements.

Both hon. Members raised a specific question about the need for the various anti-piracy missions off Somalia. It might be helpful if I were to tell them that the Combined Task Force 150 mission, to which several hon. Members referred, is primarily a counter-terrorism mission and it flies its flag under the banner of Operation Enduring Freedom. As they will know, that means that some member states in NATO will not take part in it. The NATO mission itself, to which both hon. Members referred, is due to end this month, and its focus is very much on providing escorts for the World Food Programme ships. The ESDP mission is not a duplication; it is a necessary addition and complementary to the missions that are dealing with this growing threat. Those who want to sniff at the ESDP mission display less of an appreciation of the reality on the ground and more of a traditional form of animosity to anything that flies the European Union banner. I think that that is a serious error and we should not participate in making it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) made a number of thoughtful comments on Africa and the role of the European Union in the continent. I suspect that his points are more for my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to develop and pick up in future debates.

The hon. Member for Newark spoke about the terrorist atrocity in Mumbai and asked about contingency planning in the United Kingdom. We plan for a range of possible threats, and I know that hon. Members will not want me to go into the detail of all of that. I can say to the
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hon. Gentleman and others that we have specifically developed plans to protect the UK’s vital national infrastructure, and I believe those plans to be in a very good state. It is obviously the case, too, that any such counter-terrorism measures need to be based first and foremost on a strong intelligence-led approach, and that is how we always try to proceed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) emphasised the importance of progress towards a long-term peace agreement in the middle east, and I think we can all agree with him on that.

I think that I have referred to most of the comments made by the hon. Member for Newbury, who, I know, served in the Royal Green Jackets. That very fine regiment is now part of The Rifles and we all celebrate their role today. I think he is wrong about the Defence Export Services Organisation; I think it would be a waste of time and money to rearrange the deckchairs yet again. If he were to talk to industry, he would find that it is very supportive of the way in which the organisation is working. The combined mission of my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary and me is to ensure that people in industry would not feel the difference in relation to this change of structure and organisation. Defence exports had their best ever year last year and they sustain hundreds of thousands of jobs right across the country; it is my strong desire to ensure that they do so.

The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) raised his concerns about the deployment of the Tornado in Operation Telic. I know that he has tabled a very large number of questions—

7 pm

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No.9(3)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed tomorrow.

Dr. Fox: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I appreciate that the Secretary of State was short of time tonight, but in his response he indicated that the Government would make several announcements tomorrow about the procurement programme. May I suggest that, given we were not able to discuss those tonight, an oral statement would be in order tomorrow?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): The hon. Gentleman’s point is now on the record. The occupants of the Treasury Bench have heard it, and we will have to wait and see. It is not a point of order for the Chair.

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